Birthday blog

Last week was my birthday.

This year, somehow, from not having organised any festivities and being consumed by the usual denial and panic of yet another year passing with terrifying rapidity, I seem to have experienced the best birthday on record.

It began the Tuesday before with a night of fizz and gossip with one of my oldest friends, Katie.

All things sparkling - Prosecco and a new ring
All things sparkling – Prosecco and a new ring

Despite her working in London three days a week and being a fellow runner, thus offering every excuse to get together, we don’t see each other anywhere near as often as we should, or as I would like.

It was the loveliest of treats getting to spend an evening with her and amongst other things we discussed running the Copenhagen half marathon together and as a result this has quickly made it onto my ‘must run’ list.

A blissful evening of catch-ups and cocktails with my good friend and former colleague Nina promptly followed on the Wednesday.

Cocktails
Cocktails and chat

We enjoyed two-for-one on a selection of delicious cocktails at the Lost and Found Bar in Balham and it was only the fact that I had been running earlier in the day that permitted me to indulge without too much guilt!

The venue itself was cute and cosy and the cocktails were a total bargain; definitely worth a trip if you are Balham way.

I had booked Thursday (my birthday) as annual leave way back in August, with the intention of spending a good few hours at the gym/pool, a further few hours drinking tea, reading the paper and doing the crossword and maybe going to a gallery to see an exhibition.

IMG_0133My boyfriend, however, had other ideas.

On Wednesday he had requested that I pack an overnight bag, complete with evening dress, which he would collect from me at my convenience.

As it happened, he met me from the office and exchanged my bag for a cup of tea and a hand-crafted crossword with clues to be solved throughout the course of the following day (when instructed) with each revealing the location of an activity to take place.

The first clue was to be fathomed that night to give me the location of our meeting point at 9:30am the following morning when I was instructed to wear clothes suitable for ‘mild exercise; no skirts or baggy trousers’.

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In tandem

Having solved the first clue, on Thursday morning I met him at Coffee Affair in Queen’s Town Road Station, Battersea.

Here we were received with a friendly welcome enjoyed a delicious breakfast of raw vegan porridge with strawberries and fruit compote and plentiful amounts of tea.

From here we wandered to Battersea Park where he had booked a tandem, to satisfy our joint love of all things outdoors and sporty.

With R on the front we rode easily. I was happy to just peddle and relinquish all control when it came to steering, (really not my forte), and R was adept at manoeuvring the bike around any corners and through any narrow gaps as required.

It was perhaps with a little too much complacency that we swapped seats and, within minutes, with me at the helm, found ourselves toppled into a bush. As a result my tenure in the driver’s seat was very short-lived and we quickly swapped back.

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Sporting a cycling helmet

Despite the fall (and resultant grazes), I loved the tandem ride and would go again in a flash! However, the time passed all too quickly and soon it was time for us to return the bike and for me to solve a second clue.

This took us to the South Bank (possibly my favourite place in London), and the Hayward Gallery, where we enjoyed an exhibition on love (slushy but appropriate), a much needed cup of tea, a spontaneous slide and a stroll to clue three, the National Portrait Gallery.

The BP Portrait Award, held at the NPG, is my favourite annual exhibition. It falls over my birthday every year and I normally go and see it with my dad.

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NPG for the BP Portrait Award

However this year he hadn’t been able to get into town during the run of the exhibition and I had been too sad at the thought of going it alone.

As such I was overwhelmingly pleased that R had decided to take me and he made the perfect exhibition companion, allowing me to make three circuits galleries and even playing along with my game of ranking the top five paintings (although we had to stretch to the top seven this year as the decision was tough).

With a cycle and two exhibitions under our belts we headed to clue four and lunch, which was at Moaz, the most delicious falafel café in London.

Pitta and falafel with all the toppings
Pitta and falafel with all the toppings

We stocked up our pittas with falafel, hummus and more salad that would really fit and I endeavoured to solve the next clue.

This took us to Mayfair and R’s club, where he had our bags ready to allow us to change, before enjoying Bellini’s in the bar.

I have to admit I was relieved I’d packed heels and a LBD as I don’t think my usual jeans and pumps would have cut it!

For pudding R had also managed to source a Toffutti stockist in London, (I have been craving Toffutti Cuties since my return from the States but have been unable to find them at the usual suspects – Whole Foods and Planet Organic) and had it not been for a slight melting incident, we would have enjoyed Toffutti ice creams

Hazlitts heaven
Hazlitt’s heaven

Full of champagne and 1930s style decadence we picked up our bags, hailed a cab and headed on to clue six, the most gorgeous boutique hotel in Soho, Hazlitts, where R already had my presents waiting.

He had bought me a new, superlight, running rucksack, complete with desired waist strap for my commuter runs.

As if this wasn’t all enough, inside I had the complete works of P.G. Wodehouse (my literary indulgence), and tucked inside the first page, next to a beautiful inscription, were two theatre box tickets to see Jeeves and Wooster! As you can imagine, at this point I cried.

With time to spare before the theatre, R suggested a bath in the beautiful roll-top tub and bought me a glass of wine while I enjoyed the bubbles.

We headed to the theatre where we had a box to ourselves with champagne and truffles waiting and a waitress to look after us for the evening.

Robe and red wine
Robe and red wine

The show was truly fabulous and full of fizz we headed out to a cocktail bar for one final birthday cheers before heading back to the hotel.

Just in case all of this wasn’t enough to make me fall absolutely, totally and utterly in love with him, he ordered us breakfast in bed for the next morning.

Over the weekend we headed up to my parent’s for a family weekend to celebrate mine, my dad’s and my Aunty Janice’s birthdays with a tea party.

We had made a last minute booking at Crewe Hall, which was beyond beautiful and on arrival were greeted with a glass of fizz. My sister had prepared a tea-based quiz, as well as some other tea inspired games, which were really fun and kept us all entertained.

Jeeves and Wooster
Jeeves and Wooster

The afternoon tea was delicious and I had a full tray of vegan sandwiches and treats.

It was utter heaven to spend some time with my family and to see my nephews, who are the sweetest of hearts. While we seem to be going a turbulent period with regard to family health at the moment, knowing we have each other and how well we work together as a team filled me with so much love, gratefulness and happiness.

I was showered with the loveliest and most thoughtful of gifts, including a much needed new pair of trainers – Nike frees – from my parents.

Afternoon tea
Afternoon tea

After tea we went to my Aunty Janice’s house for a luxurious afternoon of Pimm’s, board games and catching up time.

On the Sunday we enjoyed a little stroll around Trentham Lake, a lazy salad lunch, and I had chance to catch up with another old school friend, before heading back to London, where my housemates prolonged the birthday festivities with pampering a presents.

Finally, last night I celebrated with my Tough Mudder teammates with a 10km run to Anna’s house, where we cooked supper, enjoyed vegan cakes prepared by my dancing and yoga partner, Lucy, and watched Pretty Woman in our PJs.

My family
My family

Now if that isn’t the most perfect birthday on record, I don’t know what is! Suddenly 29 doesn’t seem so bad after all.

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The pursuit of happiness

IMG_1319I wanted to write one last post before I leave the US so I’m writing this while sitting in my favourite spot, looking out onto the Hudson, sun on my back, iced coffee in hand.

I thought I’d write a top ten of things to do in New York based on my last three, perfect weeks here, but I couldn’t narrow it down to ten so here’s my top eighteen instead!

In no particular order:

1. Pack your running shoes and go running
Everyone in New York seems to run. Young, old, fast or slow there is hardly a pathway or park that you won’t see a runner, and with some of the most beautiful urban running routes I’ve encountered it’s really no surprise.

Central Park is full of great little routes of varying lengths and I recommend just getting lost zigzagging the paths. Riverside Park also provides beautiful views of New Jersey accompanied by the gentle lapping sound of the Hudson and some beautiful boats silhouetted against the sky.

IMG_1174If you were just going to do one run, I’d recommend the route around the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in Central Park. The views are spectacular although the loop itself is only 2.5 km you can easily add on extensions into the park or make a second loop if you desire.

2. Walk
Walk everywhere, or as much as you can. One of my absolute favourite things about New York is the grid system. It means that even those, like me, with the absolute worst sense of direction, can always find their way.

Walking everywhere has meant that between points a and b I have encountered many cute little coffee shops, quirky cocktail bars, sunny little parks and stunning vista, emerging from quite unexpected vantage points, all chance encounters that I would have missed on the metro. Walking is such a great way of piecing the city together, on top of which, it’s such great exercise. Give yourself lots of time just to walk in Central Park. I’ve walked through it most days going to and from work and each time I still seem to find a spot I haven’t seen before.

IMG_07483. Visit Chelsea Market
Chelsea in New York is like the Liverpool Street of London, with Chelsea Market an American Spittalfields. With vintage stalls and amazing delis and cafes it’s easy to lose yourself for a good few hours. It’s all inside too, so perfect for rainy days or as an air conditioned retreat when the sun is out.

4. Walk the High Line
While in Chelsea and the Meat Packing District it’s really worth walking the High Line. This little garden retreat above the busy streets, while congested in parts, is also home to many benches and corners away from the crowds perfect to enjoy the views of the city.

5. Hit balls off Chelsea Pier
Not far from the High Line is the pier sports complex. Even if you are the worst golfer (like me) there is a certain degree of pleasure in driving golf balls off this high tiered driving range into the nets while overlooking the river. The complex also has a climbing wall if you are feeling particularly athletic.

IMG_13146. See iconic works of art
It’s a must. Even the least arty type can’t help but be awed by the Frick’s Vermeer’s and Rembrandt’s, MoMA’s Picasso’s and Monet’s or the Met’s Degas’ and van Gogh’s. All within a short stroll (with the exception of MoMA which is in Midtown) of each other along Museum Mile on the Upper East Side. Here you can also visit the Guggenheim, the Whitney, and the Cooper Hewitt.

The Met’s rooftop garden (and bar), as well as a perch on the steps for some people watching are worth a visit in themselves. Similarly MoMA’s sculpture garden offers a nice retreat in the centre of a bustling Midtown.

7. Sacrifice tea, drink iced coffee
I love tea but unfortunately I’m yet to find a good cup of tea in New York. What New York does do exceptionally well however, is coffee. I’d not tried iced coffee until this trip and I have to say it’s one of the best discoveries. I love my coffees at home, but when it’s 30 degrees hot coffee appeals that little less, but iced coffee with a spot of soya milk, amazing!

8. Watch some baseball
Nothing beats live sport and let’s be honest the American do live sports with style. Whether it’s the Mets or the Yankees, get yourself a beer and some junk food and cheer on the home side!

IMG_05179. Look at the city from the top
In any city this is my favourite thing to do and the Empire State Building offers spectacular views of Manhattan. I’ve also had Top of the Rock recommended to me. Either way, this is certainly a city you need to see from on high.

10. and from the water
The Staten Island ferry is free and offers incredible views of the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty.

IMG_0353You can also take the Circle Line sightseeing boat, however at around thirty bucks for a two hour trip I’d recommend taking the ferry instead.

11. Go Downtown
On your way back from Staten Island you can walk through the financial district, along Wall Street and via the 9/11 memorial, which is definitely worth seeing.

I loved the aesthetic of the financial district with it’s cleanly cut, no nonsense  skyscrapers reflecting the blue of the sky.

12. and Midtown
From the sleek Financial District to glitzy Midtown, highlights include the Rockafella Plaza, Grand Central Station, the West End, the New York Public Library, MoMA, Bergdorf Goodman, Tiffany’s and of course, Time Square.

Time Square should only be viewed after dark; in the day it has a more than slightly seedy feel, by night it’s spectacular.

IMG_090013. Walk the Brooklyn Bridge
For the views and for a trip to Brooklyn Bridge Park on the other side and of course Prospect Park, further into the heart of Brooklyn.

14. and the Williamsburg Bridge
It’s certainly not as pretty as the Brooklyn Bridge but it brings you right onto the main road through the  hipster central of New York.

It’s cuter than Shoreditch but you get the general idea and with a wealth of vintage shops, cool bars and cafes, which spill out into Bedford Street it’s definitely worth a trip. If you want hipster slightly closer to the heart of Manhattan, Alphabet City offers a good alternative.

15. Drink cocktails
The wine can be hit and miss and pretty pricey either way, the cocktails are always a hit!

16. Eat bagels
They’re so tasty and I refer you back to my post on American cuisine.

IMG_061217. Go to Coney Island
It’s kitsch and cutesy and kind of weird, but it’s worth the metro ride. Walk along the pier, paddle in the sea and wander around the funfair. It’s a bit like Blackpool, but hotter!

18. Watch the world go by alongside the Hudson
I’ve spent mornings over breakfast here, lazy Sunday afternoons reading my book or just watching the world go by and evenings to see the sun set.

IMG_1204The Upper Westside is a haven away from tourists and the bustle of town. It’s sufficiently residential that it feels like home and sufficiently commercial that you have everything you need on hand. It has been the perfect home for three weeks and I’ll be too sad to say goodbye.

Tofutti Cutie

appleI think I would be doing a gross disservice to the American gastronomic tradition if I didn’t write at least one post about food during my trip, so here goes.

While there is a tendency to write-off American cuisine as a mass of burgers and doughnuts, and thus not terribly vegan or waistband friendly, my recent experience has revealed this to be somewhat of a misnomer.

Don’t get me wrong, if you want fast food there is a Dunkin’ Donut or Shake Shack on every corner, but there are also plenty of juice bars and health food stores too.

Mexican, Italian and Turkish influences run through many restaurant menus, and there are plenty of tasty looking salads, flatbreads, falafel and bruschetta options, as well as vegetable tacos and bean-based chillies to choose from.

sushiMy favourite vegan restaurant discovery is the Peacefood Cafe at 460 Amsterdam and 82nd Street, with a deliciously overwhelming menu of raw food, salads, sandwiches, mock-meat dishes, soups and sushi, as well as a multitude of juices, smoothies, cakes and pastries.

It is so good, in fact, that it has warranted more than one visit; the first time I enjoyed a Japanese pumpkin, ground walnut, cashew ‘cheese’ and onion marmalade rye sandwich, while on the second trip I had the some avocado, carrot and almond pâté sushi and a slice of raw cashew nut ‘cheesecake’ on a raisin and walnut base.

I have also made a couple of stops at Absolute Bagels on 2788 Broadway and 107th Street, which offers tofutti toppings from raisin and walnut (perfect with coffee for an alfresco breakfast by the river) to roasted vegetable and sun dried tomato (a quick and tasty supper snack!)

Other surprisingly vegan-friendly locations have included the food hall at Grand Central Station, where I indulged in a mixed vegetable and hummus pitta from Eata Pitta (which was so big it lasted me for two meals), an all-American diner in Queens, where I managed to get a vegan friendly vegetable wrap (although I had to ask for it minus the cheese) with some rather decadent sweet potato fries and Citifield baseball stadium, where I sourced some vegetable tacos.

grand centralThe markets at Chelsea and the Grand Central Terminal offer food porn for those with a predilection for fresh and organic produce, while the American Whole Foods left me in choice paralysis (to the extent that in the end I bought nothing!)

Even the regular supermarkets are stocked to the rafters with vegan options, with milk alternatives of every type and flavour from vanilla almond to chocolate coconut and all other variants in between.

Almond Dream yogurts have become a supermarket staple during my trip, as have the mini packs of hummus, (which is as ubiquitous in the States as in the UK). A particular favourite of mine are the Sabra hummus and mini pretzel cracker snack packs, which are perfect for lunchtime snacking.

VanillaCutie-compIan, a friend made on my trip and former vegan himself, has introduced me to tofutti cuties – vegan ice cream sandwiched between biscuity wafers, which are just too tasty. He also popped a bar of extra dark salted chocolate with nibs into my basket on our last supermarket trip and it is quite a discovery!

The fruit and vegetable selections in supermarkets are also somewhat overwhelming and everything from apples to avocados seem super-sized and luminous. The grapes are so deliciously more-ish we’ve termed them ‘crack grapes’ and a bowl sat next to me as I work doesn’t last long.

juiceThe drinks selection is equally plentiful and while getting a good cup of English breakfast is a struggle (I’m using Lipton at home and you need at least two bags to get any kind of strength), I’ve enjoyed an iced green tea blackberry ‘mojito’ from Starbucks, (which also uses vanilla soya in their coffees here, for an added indulgence), and an espresso, almond butter, banana, cinnamon and oat milk shake at The Bean coffee shop in Williamsburg (almost a meal in itself).

While at the Met, I’ve had some early  morning vegetable juices while sat on the steps in the sunshine before work. With carrot, kale, beetroot and cucumber among the many ingredients on offer and with the juice van’s proprietor offering me free samples and a large juice at less than the price of a small (much to the annoyance of the other customers) it would be rude not to!

brunchMy friends here also seem to be rather the cocktail connoisseurs and I have been introduced to Mimosas (champagne, orange liqueur, fresh squeezed orange juice and a dash of blood orange), at brunch no less, under the High Line at the Standard Grill! I have also sampled a Rum Old Fashioned (El Dorado 15 yr, orange, brandied cherry and angostura bitters) and a French 75 (gin with fresh lemon juice and champagne) at The Rum House, just off Time Square, as well as a variety of too delicious cocktail combinations that I can’t even name, shaken up by Ian’s bartender friend, who I can confirm, really does make the best cocktails in New York!

What’s also great is that at every restaurant and bar you are given water on arrival and it is topped up as quickly as you can drink it, so you don’t overeat due to thirst, or suffer a sore head due to dehydration!

From all of this all I can say is that it’s lucky I’m running again and that I’m walking a good few miles each day. I’ll be back on my best behaviour when I’m back in London, but for now I will just say bon appetit!